By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – It is very much an understatement to say that during the first week of August 2019, West Point Thoroughbreds and their partners really got it right when purchasing two yearling colts.
Maybe even struck gold. Time will tell.
On Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga Sale, West Point, headed by president and CEO Terry Finley, and a group of investors went to $1 million for Hip 80, a son of Tapit out of Feathered (Indian Charlie). He was the session topper. Named Flightline, the lightly raced, unbeaten bay will be the heavy favorite Saturday in the $1-million GI TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Some 24 hours later, West Point and partners spent $1.5 million for Hip 174, a chestnut son of Curlin out of America (A.P. Indy). He was the auction's co-topper. Later named First Captain, he is one of the headliners in the $1-million GI Jockey Club Gold Cup to be run Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
In between Del Mar and Saratoga at Kentucky Downs Saturday afternoon, West Point and partners will have Cavalry Charge (Honor Code) in yet another $1-million race, the GIII Mint Million
Sent to high-profile trainers on either coast–Flightline to John Sadler in California and First Captain to Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey in New York–neither was ready to compete at age two and Flightline had to get past a nasty career-threatening injury while still on the farm. Coincidently, the colts broke their maidens a continent apart on same day, Apr. 24, 2021, in their 'TDN Rising Star'-worthy debuts.
Fifteen months have passed and First Captain and Flightline have important matching dates again, this time 1 1/4-mile tests within a few hours and approximately 2,850 miles from each other. Finley and his wife Debbie, the co-founders of West Point, had to select which race to attend and will be at Del Mar. Finley said he has mixed emotions about skipping First Captain's try to add a Grade I to his resume.
“I really like this horse. I really do,” Finley said. “He's a cool horse to be around, he's always been, and he's a really fun horse to watch in person. I think that's a good way to put it. It will be bittersweet. You know that we'll be tied into it out there on the TV screen at Del Mar.”
First Captain lived up to his hype last year and won his first three starts, topped by the GIII Dwyer S., after which he finished third in his first attempt around two turns in the Curlin S. at Saratoga. McGaughey was not satisfied with the way he was training and the colt was not entered again until late February. He won that optional claimer at Gulfstream, bombed in the GI Carter H. and won the GIII Pimlico Special. Finley said he was disappointed when First Captain was beaten a nose by Dynamic One (Union Rags) in the GII Suburban S., his most recent start July 9.
“He ran a winning race and the winner ran a winning race, too,” Finley said. “We just didn't have the benefit of the final pieces, or the final slice of luck there. But they're tough to get into and when we get beat–we got beat a half an inch–they sting. There's no doubt they sting when you run that well, you put in such a good effort, and you don't get the W. It doesn't go away like overnight, that's for sure. But we've got a shot to redeem ourselves. We're all feeling very, very good about our chances here.”
First Captain, co-owned by West Point, Siena Farm, his breeder Bobby Flay and Woodford Racing, was not entered in Saratoga's 1 1/8 miles GI Whitney S., dominated by Life is Good (Into Mischief). McGaughey has worked him six times at Saratoga this summer. Two of the four visits to the main track produced bullet times. He covered a half-mile in :49.50 Sunday.
McGaughey said he was pleased with the way First Captain breezed, liked the way he galloped out and deemed him ready for the Gold Cup.
“He's had a great year,” McGaughey said. “He won a race. I made a mistake and ran him in the Carter. He came back and won the Pimlico Special and got beat nose or something in the Suburban. What else more could you ask him to do?”
McGaughey said the jump from the Suburban to the Gold Cup was his plan for First Captain, who has a record of 5-1-1 from eight races, to give him two months between starts and prep him for a potential run in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.
“The reason I didn't run into Whitney is I thought it would be more effective going from a mile and a quarter race back to a mile and a quarter race with the time in between,” McGaughey said. “If he ran good, there's another mile a quarter race the first part of November. The timing would set him up great. The distance is perfect. I never had the Whitney on my mind, whether Life Is Good was in there or who was in there. I very seldom duck horses.”
McGaughey blames himself for the Carter Apr. 9. He ended up last in the field of seven, nearly 20 lengths behind Speakers Corner (Street Sense).
“I really didn't have a place to run him. We decided to take a shot,” McGaughey said. “Obviously, he didn't have that kind of speed and he ran bad. I shouldn't have run him there.”
In his first start wearing blinkers and with Luis Saez up, First Captain finished strongly to edge Vindictive (Uncle Mo) by a head in the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special. Though he was just beaten in the Suburban, McGaughey said First Captain is now in the type of races that suit his breeding and ability.
“I think he's a distance dirt horse,” McGaughey said. “He's by Curlin, who was a distance dirt horse, out of an A.P. Indy mare. A.P. Indy means long. I think it's in is pedigree that he wants to run farther.”
After a couple of races and being up for the latest breeze, Finley said he thinks Saez has a better understanding of how to ride the colt. The blinkers have been a plus, Finley said, by keeping First Captain a bit closer to the pacesetters.
“When you get up and you're running against better and better horses, it really comes down to small things in the small edges,” Finely said. “You're not always certain that you're going to pick up an edge by making an equipment change, but I think it's given us a little bit of a push forward, certainly. He's good, he's impressive and he tries. Aside from the Carter, he's really put in a good effort every time he stepped on the racetrack.”
Flightline quickly went from an eagerly anticipated prospect to a monster with his 13 1/4-length score in the six-furlong maiden race in April of last year. He added to his reputation with a 12 3/4-length romp in early September after missing some time with a foot bruise. Sadler and the ownership group of Hronis Racing, Siena Farm, his breeder Summer Wind Equine, Woodford Racing and West Point, opted to skip the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint and waited for the GI Malibu Dec. 26. He easily handled the competition by 11 1/2 lengths. On June 11, he improved to 4-for-4 with an electrifying six-length victory in the GI Met Mile.
Next up is Del Mar's marquee race and he is likely to be a short-priced favorite once again.
“This is a huge ask of this horse,” Finley said. “I can't think of another horse that the connections have been as confident or confident enough to run him the first time two turns going a mile and a quarter against, what do we have?”
Typical of a $1-million Grade I race, it attracted a slew of graded stakes winners, including G1 Dubai World Cup champ Country Grammer (Tonalist).
There's no doubt that we think he's a very, very special horse,” Finley said, “but we are throwing a lot at him. He's got to answer several questions. There are going to be fastballs that are coming out of them on Saturday. Let's see what he does with a world-class fastball.”